Get to know the A-to-Z of WWI trench slang.
The First World war was a major battle which brought together soldiers from six various continents all in one place fighting in the name of their respective countries. As they huddled in their trenches, they soon found out the knack of developing words of their own, trench slang as it is called, which seasoned their everyday conversations. When the Great War ended, these soldiers went home carrying trench slang with them into civilian life.
Some of these “trench slang” words and phrases are still used to this day. Get a lowdown on which ones are WWI vintage.
A fair whack – this phrase means “sharing around”. With the camaraderie the soldiers developed while living in the trenches, a soldier getting a parcel from home meant he had to whack whatever was in it around to fellow tommies.
Argue the toss – simply refers to have an argument. This trench slang is correlated with the gambling game which involves flipping a coin.
Backchat – pronounced as batchit, this trench slang came from a Hindi word which meant conversation. Commonwealth soldiers joined in with the tommies in the trenches and as a result, bowdlerized Indian words were adapted and used frequently. In addition to this word, there was backmash, meaning a rascal or a scoundrel; char referring to tea, and cushy, a trench slang used to mean safe and comfortable.
Barkers – trench slang for sausages issued by the Army. This was coined because the soldiers believed the said food items contained dog meat.
Basket case – this trench slang came to be for men whose upper and lower limbs were blown off and had to be carried via a basket by other soldiers away from the field. It was coined by the troops from the United States.
Blighty Britain – the trench slang meaning foreign coming from the Hindi word with the same meaning and was pronounced bilayati. The term was used for the British soldiers assigned in India.
Blotto Drunken – trench slang referring to the highly unstable bicycles developed by Blotto Frères of Paris. Besides that, it was also a jargon for to soak.
Brass hats – the trench slang applied to high-ranking officials and was made up in reference to the golden braids found in their caps.
Bully Beef/Corned Beef –this trench slang was coined from the French word boulili, meaning boiled, and the image of bulls depicted on the tin cans. This food item was also dubbed as Corned Willie in reference to the German Kaiser.
Bumf – the trench slang used originally for toilet paper, it, later on, evolved to mean any communication coming from the headquarters. It was a contracted form of two words — bum fodder.
Chatting Lice – or chats as they were more commonly known, these pests abounded in the trenches. Picking them out meant hours spent in small talks, thus, the trench slang.
Chum – this trench slang initially meant to refer to a thief’s accomplice. However, the word evolved and came to mean as what it is now — a friend.
Cop it – trench slang for dying or being mortally wounded. The term cop was derived from the Old French word caper meaning to catch. In this term’s case, to catch a shell.
Cubby hole – a foxhole or a tiny dugout.
Dingbat – an Australian trench slang which meant a batman or an officer’s servant. On the other hand, the term could also be used to call an irrational individual.
Dixie – trench slang for the tin soldiers used in cooking. It came from the Hindi word for kettle which was pronounced as daygachy.
Doolally – the trench slang for an insane person and was derived from the name of a lunatic asylum located in Calcutta.
Dum Dum – the trench slang used for bullets that bolstered upon impact.
Gaff – the term for the makeshift theaters constructed behind the lines for the entertainment of the soldiers.
Gasper – a trench slang meaning a cigarette but was used mostly by officers. Ordinary Tommies took to the cigarette trench slang fag.
Go crook – used mostly by Australian troops, this trench slang meant to get angry or report in sick for duty.
Gong – trench slang for a medal used in facetious means.
Goodnight kiss – this was the term used for the last shot made by a sniper at the end of an assault.
Have a field day – this trench slang meant to have a practical training operation. On the other hand, the term to have one on the front line conveyed that everything had went according to plan.
Hot cross bun – the trench slang for ambulance with the term coined from the red cross painted on the side of the vehicles.
Jam on it – the trench slang alluding to being in luxury or luxurious.
Latrine rumor – the trench slang used to describe any dubious piece of news. It came from the practice of Tommies spending their time in the toilets reading bits of newspapers and gossiping.
Lucifer – used to refer to a match and was taken from a popular match brand in those times.
Muck about – as the trenches got so muddy on rainy days, the soldiers were able to coin trench slang alluding to it. This term was used to describe wandering aimlessly.
Muck in – this was the trench slang for the arrangement in where soldiers could cook together, share their rations and so on.
Mufti – derived from the Arabic word meaning free, this trench slang was used to point to civilian clothes and was frequently used among officers.
Mutt and Jeff – derived from the characters of a popular American comic strip found in newspapers, this said trench slang signified the British War and the Victory Medals.
Order of the Bowler Hat – a trench slang which only officers used and was used to refer to the men being sent home from the front lines.
Outfit A unit/regiment – a phrase which, initially, was used to imply to a group of travelers but was adapted into military use because the soldiers were frequently on the move.
Over the top – the trench slang referring to the time when soldiers climbed out of the trenches and go forward to the enemies. Many soldiers got killed when they reached the spot over the parapet.
Pear drops – trench slang for poison gas and was derived from how the chemicals smelled.
Perisher – the trench slang for the periscope used in the trenches. The instrument was widely used by soldiers since it was too dangerous to stick any body part above the parapet.
Poodlefaker – the trench slang for those who were only interested in how they looked as well as in wheedling women.
Potato masher – the trench slang for the German grenade as its appearance made it look like the said kitchen tool.
Red tabs – a trench slang alluding to an officer with the term derived from the color of the tabs found on their uniforms’ collars.
Spit and polish parade – a term used to mean to the inspections made by generals.
Squarehead – the trench slang for a German soldier and was coined from their square-shaped helmets.
Strafe – originally the German word for punish, it was adopted by the English-speaking soldiers and was used to signify a bombardment.
Swinging the lead – the trench slang which meant cheating on duties. It was derived from the term applied on sailors who were tasked to measure the depth but just swing the lead plummet and gave false answers.
Thingumyjig – this was a made up trench slang word used to refer to the new devices that came to being during the war.
Third man – the trench slang meaning unlucky or being unlucky. The phrase was coined after the superstition the soldiers believed in which stated that the third man to light his cigarette from the same match would be shot down by an enemy sniper.
Tommy – the trench slang for the British soldier. Examples of recruitment papers shown to those who enlisted had the name Tommy Atkins, thus, the term. For the Americans, however, they referred to their British allies as Woodbines or Limeys.
Trench coat – the name of the jacket given to officers to wear while they were in the trenches.
Wooden overcoat – trench slang for a coffin.
Zero hour – the term for the exact time an attack was scheduled to start.
Tommy, Doughboy, Fritz: Soldier Slang of World War I, a book written by Emily Brewer talks about all these terms and more. It is published by Amberley and is priced at £10.00 in Amazon.